I’m continuing my three question video series in Boston. It’s been fun getting to talk to random people about things they like about the city and what they’re afraid of. Thanks to everyone who decided to help me by being in the video.
No one expected me to go to art school. Not even I did. I was a bit of a conformist back in high school, taking tons of math and science classes so that I could please my parents and impress my peers. Painting was fun, but art school?
Now that I think about it, it’s probably because I had no clue what art school was actually about. People mostly see and hear about RISD through the media, which means they only get to know it as a place where kids with purple hair draw naked people (albeit, you do see plenty of that as a freshman).
What they probably don’t know about RISD is that it does the most amazing job of taking away fear – the fear of starting, the fear of trying something new, the fear of fear
Art and design push boundaries like nothing else, which is why RISD actually ended up being perfect for me. It made me do a lot of things that I was really uncomfortable with, which in hindsight ended up the best thing I could have ever done.
During my first semester as a freshman at RISD, I was given the assignment to build a violin from cardboard (FYI it didn’t have to work). I immediately started making calculations and measuring angles. The girl beside me simply traced an actual violin on cardboard, building each side as she progressed. Guess who finished first? Not me.
While high school taught me to be methodical about decisions, RISD taught me to hack things together until they worked.
RISD taught me to just start. Make something rough. Make it imperfect. Just make it, because it’ll get you further ahead than the person who’s still “measuring” the perfect way to do it.
I had never worked like this before in my life. Grade school never taught me how to make, so it was my first experience of getting my hands dirty and toying with creation.
During my time in the industrial design (ID) department, I learned how to use a vacuum-form machine, a metal lathe and a blowtorch. If you had asked me high school whether I wanted to play with these machines, I would have probably backed away pretty quickly.
But the courses I took in ID required me to use them again and again, and as a result, they broke my fear of them. I practiced and practiced, until I realized nothing bad was going to happen to me while I used them.
By the end, I had hand-machined slider cranks, built foot pedals for sinks and soldered hollow-construction rings together.
RISD made me comfortable with fear. I became adjusted to trying new things on a regular basis; instead of being risk-averse, I became very risk-tolerant.
When you do this enough, it becomes more than a habit; it turns into an attitude, a mentality that you carry with you whenever you approach obstacles at work or in life. Instead of hesitating and worrying about whether the outcome is going to be perfect, you just dive in and see what it’s about.
While I’m not saying that art school does this for everyone, I am saying that sometimes, you just have to let go. Go and jump into something you’re afraid to do. You’ll look back and wonder why you ever feared it in the first place.
I started wearing glasses when I was in middle school. My parents asked me one day if I could read a sign on the outgoing mail box from where we were sitting in our car. I said “no.” Horrified, they immediately blamed it on the Game Boy that I had spent far too much time playing. I realized in that moment that I would probably never play Game Boy again. I was right.
In the following months, I found myself going to the eye doctor and receiving my first pair of prescription glasses. I hated them, and I hated the fact that I could no longer play video games. The 12-year-old me couldn’t see how becoming near-sighted could ever give me any advantages in life. Most people would probably agree. How could seeing life as a giant blur help in any way?
It may sound strange, but seeing without focusing on one particular thing in front of me has helped in many ways.
Think of standing in front of an audience of 75 people. They’re all staring at you, waiting for you to give a presentation. Your palms are sweating and your stomach is turning. You see everyone’s expressions and reactions to whatever it is that you’re saying. That’s what it felt like when I wore glasses.
Now imagine blocks of tans, reds, blues and grays moving slightly back and forth. They are the people you are presenting to. They have no faces, no expressions, no visual reactions. That is what it’s like what I see without visual aids. I don’t get nervous. I remember my speech and go through the presentation without a hitch.
Not that this is helpful in every scenario (especially for ones where you need to see other people’s faces), but it has in fact made me lose any fear of speaking in public.
See, after I conditioned myself to stop worrying about the people out there and worry more about the content that I was about to present, I could start using visual aids again. After a while, I just stopped getting nervous altogether, even when I would be wearing glasses or contacts.
Now think about this: instead of seeing the big picture, you only see the small things directly in front of you. Your brain stops focusing on the things far away and only focuses on step no. 1. What’s so great about this? Well, it turns out it makes me think about step no. 1 not only in physical space but also in mental space.
Say my room is a complete mess. Everything is in disarray, and I just can’t get started, because it seems like such a huge task.
But then I remove my contacts, and instead of seeing the large amounts of clothing I have to organize, I only see the first piece of clothing in front of me that I have to pick up. Seeing that first step is a way for me to keep going little by little until I finish my task.
Finally, being near-sighted as been helpful in doing something that actually requires navigating physical space well. Running outdoors requires that you see well enough so that you don’t trip or crash into things. In fact running without visual aids might even be considered dangerous depending on how poor your vision is. (My eyesight isn’t so terrible that I wouldn’t be able to see a train coming towards me.)
But after running without contacts once, I realized something. It was that I could concentrate more on running, because my brain wasn’t receiving visual input that could be translated into additional thoughts that could distract me. I didn’t see the advertisements on the streets, the birds on the sidewalk, the little things that might stop me from focusing on breathing and going forward. I was purely concentrated on the one activity that I was doing.
Seeing without focusing isn’t something that works for everyone. It works for me, because I’ve learned to use it in a positive way that helps me get better at certain things. Once I’ve gotten better at them, I can go back to seeing and focusing. It’s a conditioning technique that has come out of a flaw that I once hated.
If I had told the 12-year-old me that losing 20/20 would have some benefits, I probably wouldn’t have believed myself. You might still not believe me either. But I’ve found something that I can use in order to do things that I might not otherwise want to do. I’ve made myself see a glass that’s more than half full, even if in reality it’s less than half empty.
Image by Mark Skrobola
Professor Eppinger, one of the instructors of the Product Design and Development course I took at MIT asked us one day during my final semester of college to sketch a new concept that would bring new technologies and existing products together (we were given specific options, which were written on the board). Everyone – engineering, business and design students – took about five minutes to come up with something. He then asked us to show the class what we had just sketched via overhead projector.
Nearly everyone who ran up to the projector was an engineering or business student. The sketches were (from a designer’s point-of-view) poor and the ideas were vague, but they were confident about their concepts.
Very few of the design students went up to the projector. Why?
Most likely, it was because many of them didn’t feel like their ideas were presentable (along with the additional fear of public speaking). Design students spend an awful lot of time perfecting their work. The director of RISD’s Career Center even mentioned to me once that he sees lots of students perfecting their portfolio, but never really finishing it or taking a ridiculous amount of time to finally put it online. Designers prefer to show their work when it’s reached a certain stage, and five minutes isn’t that stage when there are seventy-five other people looking at it.
Therein lies a problem.
If you don’t present your idea because you don’t think it’s presentable enough, your AMAZING idea will be bypassed for someone else’s so-so idea, because they spoke first.
In school, you’re often given an assignment in school where you can thrash out ideas by yourself first before you discuss them with anyone. You then form a way to visualize your idea and you “present” it in the sense that you already know what ideas you’re offering before you speak. You make sure everything looks perfect. Sketches and models, are they stunning? Good.
Real life involves coming up with ideas on the spot and communicating your concepts effectively to people who might not understand exactly what you do. You can’t wait until midnight when everything starts clicking. You don’t have a lot of time to digest everything.
So what do you do? You have to practice thrashing your ideas out around other people, with other people. You have to accept that not everyone is a visual person. Some people are primarily verbal and understand through words alone, which is why they feel that powerful words alone can do the trick. You have to put yourself in situations that you might fear at first but will grow accustomed to with time. You’ve GOT TO SHIP YOUR IDEA, because everyone deserves to see what awesome things you have to offer.
I say this, because it’s true. Show your work. Show it loud. The real world is at your feet.
(photo from imageafter)
I learned recently that my friends aren’t really down with the idea of eating shrimp still attached with their heads. Well, I know it’s never fun to look into the eyes of a dead thing while you’re munching on it, but I felt I received an over-reaction at my comment that I don’t eating shrimp whole.
Yes, this is the girl whose favorite food as a child was fish eyes, but give me a chance here.
The problem is that everything is so processed where I live now that people can’t attach middle to beginning. I’m calling it disconnection to source.
I’m used to eating as in a lot of people sitting at a circular table participating in a very active event. If I may, I will use my grandfather as an example. The majority of what my grandfather eats on a daily basis involves an additional process before it’s gulped down. That means peeling, cracking – you name it – parts of the food to eat it.
I lived like that too at one point. I’m positive my one-year-old self was better at spitting out fish bones than I am now. But it was because I had a need to do it. Nothing was done for me.
We all know how the story goes here. Everything – everything – is de-boned, de-scaled, be-headed and de-gutted. So perhaps my issue with this disassociation to where things come from is just cultural. Is it?
For me, it’s not about the shrimp. It’s that we forget where things come from and we forget where things go. It’s like seeing only yellow-green instead of the entire spectrum. How many of us take food that’s handed to us and swallow it all at once, not cherishing it or thinking about how difficult and how long the process was of obtaining it in the first place. How many people are aware that half the foods they eat during spring are out of season?
When I was little, I was told that I couldn’t waste a single grain of rice on my dinner bowl, because rice farmers had spent all day every day toiling in the sun to produce it for me. Someone else had to suffer so I could have something precious.
Sure, much of what I eat now is grown by farmers using efficient machines, but for many places on the planet, my old philosophy still holds. Understanding the most vital ingredient for sustaining life still matters.
I still love my friends. They can hate eating shrimp with their attached heads. I’ll carry on eating my seaweed, octopus and eel.